Vehicle airbags have saved countless numbers of lives since they first started being introduced to vehicles some 30 years ago. The technology has evolved to the point where today, there are few areas within a modern vehicle’s interior that doesn’t have a dedicated air bag ready to deploy in the event of a collision.
There have been hiccups along the way, of course, most particularly the scandal surrounding defective Takata airbags. But for the most part, the integration of airbag systems has been an unmitigated success.
The technology, however, has focused exclusively on the interiors of vehicles. Until now. The ZF company has perfected a new external lateral inflatable bag system, and says that the first modules could appear in vehicles within the next two years.
ZF’s airbag system functions very similarly to traditional interior airbags, except that it relies on a system of cameras and sensors able to accurately detect an imminent side impact, so that it doesn’t deploy too late, but also to ensure it doesn’t deploy unnecessarily. The company’s testing led it to estimate that the severity of injuries from side-impact collisions would be reduced by 40% - a substantial reduction, to be sure.
The accuracy of the system will be critical. A few instances of a cyclist getting walloped by an external airbag set off by the proximity of the bicycle to the vehicle, for example, could be enough to turn public opinion against the system. ZF estimates that the airbag, once it is set off, takes 100 milliseconds to deploy.
If and when the technology is perfected, it seems clear that it will help reduce the number of fatalities resulting from road accidents and diminish the severity of injuries incurred by vehicle passengers.
It’s also easy to imagine the day when airbags of different types will bring the fatality rate down to zero by protecting all areas of vehicles’ interiors. Some manufacturers like Volvo have already declared that their aim is to arrive at a point where no one loses their life in one of their vehicles.
In its own distinct but related way, autonomous driving technology seeks to arrive at the same goal. ZF is in fact working on other safety features for future modes of transportation. A person lying flat within their self-driving vehicle will, for example, require a different kind of protection solution than airbags as they’re currently configured.
If it all seems like science fiction, keep in mind that right now there are tremendous resources and large teams of people working on these very issues and solutions.
And to think that in 1973, when road fatalities peaked in Canada, some 6,700 people lost their lives as a result of car-related accidents. How does 0 sound in comparison with that?